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Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.

Ludwig Van Beethoven was baptised on December 17th 1770 at Bonn. His family came from Brabant, in Belgium. His father was musician at the Court of Bonn, with a weakness for drink. His mother was always described as a gentle, retiring woman, with a warm heart. His parents had seven children but only three boys survived, of whom Beethoven was the eldest.

BeethovenPlayingGrandPianoLeft_Med.gifAt an early age, Beethoven took an interest in music and his father taught him upon returning to the house from music practice or the tavern. Undoubtedly the child was gifted and his father Johann envisaged creating a new Mozart, a child prodigy.

On March 26th 1778, at the age of 7½, Beethoven gave his first know public performance, at Cologne. His father announced that he was 6 years old. Because of this, Beethoven always thought that he was younger than he actually was.

The musical and teaching talents of Johann were limited. Soon Ludwig learned music, particularly the organ by renowned musicians, such as Gottlob Neefe. Neefe recognised the how extraordinarily talented Beethoven was. As well as music, he made the works of philosophers, known to Beethoven.

BeethovenWritingMusic_Med.gifIn 1782, before the age of 12, Beethoven published his first works: 9 variations, in C Minor, for Piano, on a march by Ernst Christoph Dressler.

In June 1784, on Neefe’s recommendations, Ludwig was appointed organist of the court of Maximilian Franz, Elector of Cologne. He was 14. Here he met people who were to remain friends for the rest of his life.

At home, little by little, Ludwig replaced his father. Financially first of all, because Johann now often under the influence of drink, was less and less able of keeping up his role at the court.

Prince Maximilian Franz was also aware of Beethoven’s gift and so he sent Beethoven to Vienna, in 1787, to meet Mozart and to further his musical education. A letter called Beethoven back to Bonn: his mother was dying. She was the only person in his family with whom he had a strong, loving relationship. She passed away on July 17th 1787.

In 1792, Beethoven went back to Vienna, benefiting from another grant from Prince Elector. He never went back to the town of his birth. There he took lessons with Haydn and others. He astonished, Vienna, with his virtuosity and improvisations on the piano.

In 1794, Beethoven composed his opus 1, three trios for piano. The following year, Beethoven made his first public recital at Vienna where each musician was to play his own work. Then he went on tour to Prague, Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin before leaving for a concert in Budapest.

Beethoven made numerous acquaintances at Vienna. Most the musical and aristocratic world admired the young composer. These music-lovers were his greatest supporters.

In 1800, Beethoven organised a new concert at Vienna including, notably, the presentation of his first symphony. Although today we find this work classical and equal to the works of Mozart and Haydn, at that time certain listeners found the symphony strange, overstated and risqué. This young genius, was still a new composer but was already pushing the established boundaries of music.


In 1801 Beethoven confessed to his friends at Bonn his worry of becoming deaf. At Heiligenstadt, in 1802, he wrote a text which expressed his disgust at the unfairness of life: that he, a musician, could become deaf. It was something he did not want to live through. But music made him carry on. Knowing that his handicap was getting worse and worse, he threw himself into his greatest works for piano: notably The Storm, opus 31, the 2nd and 3rd symphonies- The Eroica and many more. Meanwhile, Beethoven had finally finished his opera, Leonore, the only opera he ever wrote. He wrote and re-wrote four different overtures. The opera was renamed Fidelio, against the wishes of the composer.

In the years that followed, the creative activity of the composer became intense. He composed many symphonies, amongst which were the Pastoral and the Coriolan Overture. He took on many students, those he found young and attractive and he therefore fell in love with several of them. The Archbishop Rudolph, brother of the emperor, also became his student, his friend and eventually one of his benefactors.


In 1809, Beethoven wanted to leave Vienna, at the invitation of Jérome Bonaparte but his time-honoured friend, the Countess Anna Marie Erdödy, kept him at Vienna with the help of his wealthiest admirers: the Archbishop Rudolph, the Prince Lobkowitz and the Prince Kinsky. These men gave Beethoven an annual grant of 4,000 florins, allowing him to live without financial constraint. The only condition was that Beethoven was not to leave Vienna. Beethoven accepted. This grant made him the first independent composer. Before this contract musicians and composers alike (EG: Bach, Mozart, Haydn), became servants of wealthy aristocratic families, a part of the domestic staff with no more rights than any other servant but with the added task of composition and performance. Hence, for the musician of the day, he had outstanding circumstances and was free to write what and when he wanted.

Then Prince Lobkowitz, fell into financial difficulty and the Prince Kinski died from falling off his horse. Kinski’s descendant decided to put an end to the financial obligations towards Beethoven. Here started one of the composer’s many attempts at saving his financial independence.

The Czech Johann Nepomuk Maelzel took up contact with Beethoven. Inventor of genius and in all probability inventor of the metronome, Maelzel had already met Beethoven and had created various devices to help Beethoven with his hearing: acoustic cornets, a listening system linking up to the piano, etc.

BeethovenHoldingTrebilCleff_Med.gifIn 1813, Beethoven composed ‘The Victory of Wellington’, a work written for a mechanical instrument made by Maelzel, the “panharmonica” or “panharmonicon”. But it was above all the metronome which helped evolve music and Beethoven, who had taken interest straight away, noted scrupulously the markings on his scores, so that his music could be played how he wished.

The ninth symphony was practically finished in 1823, the same year as the Missa Solemnis. Liszt, who was 11, met Beethoven who came to his concert on April 13th. He congratulated the young virtuoso heartily who, years later, transcribed the entirety of Beethoven’s symphonies for piano.

In 1826, Beethoven caught cold coming back from his brother’s place, with whom he had rowed again. The illness complicated other health problems from which Beethoven had suffered all his life. He passed away encircled by his closest friends on March 26th 1827, just as a storm broke out.

The funeral rites took place at the church of the Holy Trinity. It is estimated that between 10 and 30,000 people attended. Franz Schubert, timid and a huge admirer of Beethoven, without ever having become close to him, was one of the coffin bearers, along with other musicians. Schubert died the next year and was buried next to Beethoven.

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BeethovenConducting_Med.gif BeethovenPlayingGrandPianoRight_Med.gif BeethovenPlayingViolin_Med.gif BeethovenPlayingCello_Med.gif BeethovenRidingNoteRight_Med.gif BeethovenRidingNoteLeft_Med.gif BeethovenSittingOnKeyboardThinking_Med.gif

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